June Issue 2012

By | Arts & Culture | Published 12 years ago

In this day and age, no one can deny the great power of television. Despite the cyber revolution, television, too, is a powerful medium to inform, educate, entertain and create awareness. It also advocates, whether subtly or forcefully, and it definitely affects how the audience thinks.

Among the most watched programmes on television in Pakistan today are the episodic television serials, popularly known as ‘dramas.’ Most of these dramas centre around the family, especially women, often as independent individuals and most often as mothers, sisters and wives. Women are critical to almost each and every story but how are they portrayed in our television plays? This is one of the more contentious issues under debate since the advent of television, not only in Pakistan, but also globally. As a media monitor, I feel that the majority of Pakistani dramas today are a strange mix of progress and regress. While some serials do carry a few liberal, progressive and gender-sensitive messages, most of them reinforce patriarchal values and denounce orthodoxy in the same stride, almost as if they co-exist.

It is indeed confusing and very difficult for the general viewing public to understand the contradictory messages underpinning several storylines in the modern-day drama. For example, why is the woman blamed for breaking up a man’s marriage when the man in question has clearly shown his interest in her, right from the day she marries his friend/partner (Saman in Maat)? Too often, working women are depicted as strong and independent, yet also negatively portrayed as cunning and vampire-like (In Durr-e-Shawar the male lead, Haider, laments the fact that his wife, Shandana, is a working woman).

Women are increasingly shown being brutalised by men — slapped, beaten up, humiliated, abused — and, conversely, men are depicted as the exclusive decision-makers, who simply order the women in their lives around, telling them what to do or what not to do. What is extremely worrying about such scenes depicting male dominance and male chauvinism, is that they invoke similar negative behaviour, especially among males in the general public. The ordinary man or woman becomes subject to this reinforcement of stereotypical images of women, and adapts and accepts these stereotypes as normal and natural.

The portrayal of women in Pakistani television serials is far removed from reality. Whenever a man resorts to adultery, the woman is blamed as the temptress; matrimony is glamourised to the extent that the ultimate goal of a girl’s life is to be married and modernism is a bane rather than a boon. These serials reinforce damaging stereotypes about women and project a highly negative image of women. In almost every serial, the implication is that the woman is to be blamed for whatever is wrong in her own life, or even in the life of her family and people she interacts with or is related to.

I will only highlight a few examples to support my argument that sexist attitudes and stereotypes remain one of the major areas of concern in Pakistani television serials. Foremost is the manner in which honour is depicted, often in highly distorted contexts. Every other drama uses the term ‘honour’ to exonerate criminals of the most heinous crimes. A brother’s or father’s reaction (even to the extent of committing murder, the so-called ‘honour killing’) when a sister/daughter is suspected of immorality, is portrayed in such a manner that the crime (the murder of the sister/daughter) is glorified and the victim condemned. Very rarely, almost never, do these serials convey the idea that ‘honour’ does not have a physical manifestation and is purely related to a person’s character. Honour can never be taken away by the use of force. If anyone’s honour is to be questioned, it should be the ‘honour’ of the perpetrator of the crime, not that of the victim (the woman).

Another disturbing aspect of many dramas is the overly negative emotions attached to having a daughter. Words and phrases constantly refer to the presence of a young daughter as a burden, a load that needs to be shed as soon as possible. The expressions of relief exhibited by an entire clan on getting a daughter married very strongly reinforce the age-old notion that ‘a woman’s real home is her susral (in-laws) and that a woman must have the protection of a husband to survive in this ‘cruel’ world.

Connected to this patriarchal approach is the issue of a divorced woman, or one in the process of getting a divorce. Reactions include sarcasm, taunting the woman and downright matam (mourning). The blame is placed squarely on the woman for not being able to keep her marriage intact or her husband happy. A woman who asks for a divorce is portrayed as committing an unpardonable act. A man can say talaq three times to his wife for no reason with impunity, but a woman wanting to get out of an abusive or difficult relationship is still made to look socially unacceptable.

I also have problems with many of today’s serials where women are reduced to being mere objects, and their looks are considered their biggest asset. Then there are serials where the most unnatural scenarios are presented (even though the problem could be genuine). For example, two creepy old men are shown ogling the young maids who work in their home, in the programme Shauqeen. Their behaviour is clear-cut sexual harassment but presented as a joke, something the two maids are also shown enjoying.

However, it is important to consider whether it’s enough to simply criticise Pakistani serials, or even condemn those aspects that negate women. No doubt these stereotypical images are a result of deeply embedded social practices and interpretation, but it is also important to focus on the entire production team of television plays and ‘soaps’ that takes an active part in constructing and reinforcing these images. It is essential that dialogue and debate be opened with media critics and activists to develop awareness of the issues raised in this article. I firmly believe that a conscious effort needs to be made to realise the power of an alternative view. Like alternative cinema, we must also endeavour to have ‘alternative television.’ In the absence of public debate on the subject of the portrayal of women in television serials, writers, directors and producers are free–and in some cases encouraged–to portray women in stereotypical, negative ways. This mostly stems from a centuries-old belief system that is so ingrained in our consciousness that many think of it as normal. It is not normal, nor is it according to moral or ethical values or the tenets of true religious ideals, yet it is given even greater legitimacy through these well-packaged serials. For those of us who don’t consciously subscribe to such negative, stereotypical images of women as part of our own belief system, we find ourselves targets of our television channels that bombard us with obscurantist messages about what it means to be a woman today.

There is a need for a constant watch on the media portrayal of women and there is a requirement for a specific channel via which the general public can voice their views about media content and the policy of continued portrayal of women in age-old patriarchal and stereotypical roles.

Can we see the real Pakistan woman in our television serials, please?

This article was originally published in the June issue under the headline “Past is Present.”